Sports

New Idaho Steelheads player is smashing stereotypes

Zach Yuen is a former NHL draft pick.
Zach Yuen is a former NHL draft pick. Provided by Idaho Steelheads

Young hockey players looking for a role model could do a lot worse than Steelheads defenseman Zach Yuen.

Consider:

Yuen, 22, is a former figure skater who plays classical piano.

He speaks French, English and Cantonese, and is learning Mandarin.

He leads all ECHL defensemen in power-play points with 17.

And then there’s the real kicker: Yuen became the first Chinese-Canadian defenseman to be drafted by an NHL team when Winnipeg selected him in the fourth round in 2011.

“I definitely want to be a role model for that kid who might come from a different background,” said Yuen, a native of Vancouver, B.C. “I want to show them that you can do what you want to do.”

But it hasn’t always been a smooth ride for Yuen.

“Obviously, there are a lot of stereotypes out there … and there haven’t been many Chinese hockey players at the professional level,” said Yuen, whose father moved from Hong Kong to Canada when he was 15.

And, yes, there have been a few slurs tossed at him on the ice.

“From opposing teams, I’ve heard it before,” Yuen said, “but there’s definitely a lot less of that the higher level you go.”

It helps that teammates and coaches have always embraced him.

First-year Steelheads coach Neil Graham considers Yuen a Canadian hockey player, first and foremost.

“Yes, he is from Chinese descent, but we don’t focus on a guy’s racial background or their religion or political point of view,” Graham said. “He’s an Idaho Steelhead and he’s just another member of the locker room who fits in with our group.”

Actually, Graham and former coach Brad Ralph wanted Yuen in an Idaho uniform a few years ago, but that never materialized. But when Graham had the opportunity to acquire Yuen in a trade with the Atlanta Gladiators this season, he took it.

“We had to give up a young prospect in Cole Martin to get him,” Graham said. “But we’re very happy with what Zach has done for our team.”

And why not? Prior to his arrival, Idaho had a 6-10-4 record. Since then, the Steelheads have gone 17-8-1. That’s not all because of Yuen’s efforts, of course. The addition of forward Kyle Jean helped (Jean and Yuen debuted Dec. 2), as did the addition of goaltender Jack Campbell about a month later.

Graham said Yuen is playing a big role on special teams.

“There’s no question that since he’s been here, since Kyle Jean has been here … they’ve really helped turn our power play around,” Graham said. “It went from one of our weaknesses at the start of the year to one of our strengths. It’s a weapon for us now, and Zach is the quarterback of the power play.”

Yuen said he was “excited” when he heard he was being traded to the Steelheads, and the past few months haven’t changed that.

“There were a bunch of new guys when I got here, so I think it just took some time to adjust,” Yuen said. “But since then, we’ve really jelled together.”

The team chemistry has translated into wins. The Steelheads just swept Yuen’s former team in Atlanta, have won four straight and six of their past seven games.

After playing for three different ECHL teams since the 2013-14 season, Yuen wouldn’t mind settling in with the Steelheads for a postseason run.

“I love the situation here,” he said. “It’s a great hockey town and a great coaching staff. I’m really happy here and I want us to go as far as we can.”

Steelheads home for four games

▪ Alaska Aces: Wednesday, Friday, Saturday

▪ Utah Grizzlies: Feb. 12

▪ Fan facts: Games start at 7:10 p.m. at CenturyLink Arena in Boise. ... Games air on Cable One 72 and KTIK (1350 AM). ... Tickets at IdahoSteelheads.com or the CenturyLink Arena box office.

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